Friday, 20 July 2012

We Need to Talk

Sometimes things just don't add up.
I posted recently about the ways, in my experience, that freelancers can add value. It prompted a few responses and a lively dialogue with professional copywriter Alasdair Murray.

For the record, let me state that:

1. I enjoy being challenged, where it makes me think about what I'm communicating - and why.

2. It's not about getting consensus, it's about developing and presenting a reasoned argument with evidence and supporting information.

3. Alasdair has a point.

You can read the post and comments here, or I can sum it up in a few lines. Okay, I said one way of securing regular work was signing up with sites that advertise writing work. I mentioned that I'd signed up with Copify, enjoyed their blog and that the signs were good so far. (That's all true. I wrote one piece for £12 and it took less than an hour, although I didn't state that in the piece.) Alasdair countered that the site offered work for 2p per word, which is low when compared with the professional rate and undermines the profession.

The dialogue throws up some interesting questions:
- What distinguishes a professional from a beginner or an intermediate practitioner?
- If the rate you want / deserve is not available, what do you do?
- How long ought one to write at a lower rate in order to build a portfolio?
- What if it were a magazine offering a lower rate or a publisher slashing a royalty percentage?

In short: When does a professional become a professional?
And what about the pic 'n' mix writers like me? How much experience is enough experience?

After the discussion, I went back to Copify to ask about their average rate per word.


Hi Derek,
I can tell you that over the past 30 days, the average per word rate we have paid out to writers has been 2.9p, the average pay in total for a job is £12.

If you need any further information, please don't hesitate to contact me!

-
Martin


Now, in the interests of balance, it must be said there are jobs posted there that could equate to £6 per hour. Would I write for that amount? No. In fact, the last writing gig I really fancied doing was advertising that rate, for an hour's work, and I bumped them up to £16 on the basis of my background, experience and promised turnaround. I got the job.

It's a conundrum. When I had a piece commissioned by and published in The Guardian, I expected it would open doors and lead to further newspaper work. Thus far, that hasn't been the case - although I have written for several magazines (different rates and regular work). So what's a writer to do if the work stream dries up, as it can do from time to time? Do we hold the line and say that if no one is paying the rate we'll go and shell peas instead for a bit?

Come to that, should we, for the good of the profession, maintain standards even when they have a potentially detrimental impact upon us? Alasdair's point, in part, was that not everyone has the skill and talent to be a copywriter.

That's true.

Writing - of any kind - takes practice and discipline to develop. If there are more writers than highly paid work, what's the solution? Is undercutting the industry rate akin to strike breaking? Is it any different from a plumber (yeah, I know - writers and plumbers...) competing on price to the detriment of those who can't afford to work that cheaply? Isn't that the reason the UK manufacturing base has diminished?

(Tangentially, on the subject of loss leaders, look at the milk industry at the moment.)

Some would argue that businesses seeking a low rate per word have already decided that they can't or won't pay the industry rate. So one way or another a writer was never going to get, say, 10p per word from them.

I encourage you to share your views in the comments field. I think Social media can be more than just an opportunity to say I wuv you or Buy my book you bastards or even Social media is the work of Satan. It can be a platform for dialogue and meaningful conversation. It can be a tool for education and change. It can even be a way of challenging ourselves.

Bottom line. I was happy to take on a quick writing gig for £12. Should I have? And would you?
The floor is yours!

Addendum: Copify advises that its highest rate is 4p per word. I also asked for their views about its rate versus a higher industry rate.


Our intention has never been to undermine anybody. The rates we charge and the rates we pay reflect the state of the copywriting market, and in my experience what people are willing to pay. The site is intended for those who are starting out and also established copywriters who maybe need extra work to see them through quiet periods. 

12 comments:

  1. Hi Derek!

    I personally wouldn't work for £12 per gig, on the basis that I've been in the business for over 15 years. I don't particularly like these sites that advertise 'Writers Wanted' because they all pay peanuts and the problem is, when writers accept low-paying gigs, they will never pay writers their true worth. They say you're only worth what you think you're worth;)

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    1. Thanks Deb, good to get your view.

      I suppose my question is, then, what does one do is there are no well-paid gigs? I know what I think I'm worth, but that doesn't always equate to what work is out there. Or rather, what work I can find.

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  2. It's a diificult one Del. I face the same crappy choice day in, day out with my photography (www.wolf-photography.com if anyone's interested). We're facing similar issues, human over-population resulting in over saturated labour markets. The people that want others to produce words and images for them know this and they have our industries by the short and curlies - simply because people WILL under cut each other if they get desperate enough.

    Should you have taken the £12 gig? As a person trying to put food on the table, yes. As someone that's been helping other writers along, providing workshops to enable other writers - NO. If we care about our industries, we need to have an agreed standard for an agreed tarrif ... and we need to stick to it. The bureau of freelance photographers makes recommendations and snappers use that as a guideline. There must be something similar for writers?

    If we can't do that as people established in our fields to some degree, how can we expect aspiring writers that are currently students or beginners in the profession to adhere to the same? They're the one's on the breadline.

    In photography royalty free images are killing off the industry. Images are being harvested from many other sources: competitions seizing full rights to images as a condition of entry, websites asking for user submissions for free (culprits include BBC and National Geographic) and enthusiasts submitting images everywhere for a credit and no pay (which they're happy with as they already have a main occupation).

    The writing industry must be suffering the same way.

    Our only salvation is to constantly push our own boundaries (whatever our form of creativity) and to hope we stay one step ahead in terms of quality and consistency.

    However, more and more companies are turning to multi-talented staff within their own ranks.

    The writing's on the wall: If you want to protect your occupation, you need to unite on certain issues.

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    1. Hi Wolf, again - like Deb - I applaud the sentiments.

      I think the whole experience has been a bit of a wake-up call for me. One can easily forget, in any form of self-employment (be it full or part time) that what we do reflects upon the what we represent, personally and professionally.

      I have now requested the cancellation of my account on that writing site.

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  3. Hi Derek,

    Yes, I know what you mean; how do you keep the money rolling in if writing is your full time job, if you don't take what's on offer, even if it does pay peanuts? Which is why many writers have a second income or have to explore other writing avenues, such as writing greeting card verses (highly profitable, I must add and can earn around £150 per verse) or getting a few regular columns or paying blog slots, or proofreading and editing for publishers.
    Wolf; many writers go by the NUJ guidelines to establish their rates of pay:
    http://www.londonfreelance.org/rates/w1000onl.html
    It's a tricky one; do you take anything anyone offers you, just to put bread on the table, or do you stick to what you feel you're worth, given your experience?

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    1. Hiya Deb, and thanks for sticking with the conversation. I completely agree about being a 'portfolio' writer - that's why I produce a number of writing products. As you'll have sen from my reply to Wolf, I have now cancelled my account with that writing site, so I've made my choice now and set my level. Let's see what happens as a consequence! I have a new column coming out in a mag next month. The real issue is finding enough columns, etc to keep the wolf from the door (the other one!). I know the work is out there, just not necessarily in the volumes to provide for all those writers who want it. But hey, that's true for any industry and there are never any guarantees. That's a great link, by the way.

      What's new with your writing, incidentally?

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  4. Hiya Derek,

    I think a lot of the problem is that anyone can become a writer - you don't have to pass a series of exams, or study for X amount of years, so not only is the market saturated, new writers will happily work for a few quid a gig. I also think a lot comes down to a little bit of luck and a lot of numbers. The more pitches you put out there, the more chances you have of getting a yes, followed by a nice fat cheque. I'm pleased to hear you cancelled working for that site. It's the same with bidding sites: obviously the client is going to take the lowest bid and if some writers are happy to undercut others, then they are the ones that get the gig. I on the other hand would much rather do one job for £600, than 50 for the same amount of money.
    Re: my own writing: I have about 20K words left to write on the sequel novel, which I always find is the hardest bit! Aside from that I have a few journalism jobs in, but this time of the year editors are heading off for their holidays, so work is usually slow until September.
    Fab news about your new column - where will it be featured?
    Keep remembering you are a good writer and worth more than you often think!

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    1. Hiya Deb, in the light of this topic I did a little audit on my trusty spreadsheet recently. I found that the work I enjoyed the most was also, coincidentally, the work that generally paid the best. It had the most creative freedom, better defined requirements and the greatest rewards. Go figure! I'll drop you a line about the mag column.

      It feels good to have made a decision about where I draw the line. Twill be interesting to see where that takes me to and away from as a consequence.

      Ah, the final 20k of a novel. The headlong rush where, hopefully, it all comes together! Let me know when it's done and dusted - happy to interview you nearer the launch date.

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  5. I have a translation degree and I can tell you the field is just as bad. Businesses want a qualified, trained translator, but they want to pay you less than they pay their secretary (sometimes they want to hire you as a 'secretary' but you'll be handling all the translation).

    The freelance market is so bad I gave up on working as a translator. My cashier job pays better and I'd rather focus on writing.

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    1. Hi Anna, I had a similar experience as an accredited project manager. Someone wanted the skills and experience without meeting the professional rate. I think Deb (above) makes a valid point that writing is something you can pick up and develop without necessarily gaining a degree or formal accreditation. I fall into that category. The great thing about conversations like this - much as your own blog post on book reviews does - is that it stimulates conversation and discussion. That way we get to see more sides of the argument.

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  6. I am about to strike out into the world of trying to find some freelance copywriting work. I'm really torn in that I'm inexperienced. I don't want to work for peanuts but I don't feel like I have earned the right to ask for much more!

    £12 for less than an hour's work doesn't seem so crazy to me. Yes, it's cheap, but compared to some stuff out there (I've seen work ads for writing 100 product descriptions for $10 and things like that) it's not so terrible.

    I was browsing a few freelance websites last week and was reading one job description only to see the first question asked about the job was by you!

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    1. Good morning, Chloe. I suppose, to echo Deb's points, we always know more than we know and we bring a lot of other experience to the writing desk. And, for the lucky ones, there's talent too. It's partly about where we place ourselves on the scale too. I've made a decision to take stock and act accordingly.

      If you'd like, drop me an email and I'll send you the links that I use regularly, some of which yield a lucrative job or two.

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